Abstract and Masculine Language in Nuclear Planning

Cohn provides an interesting and insightful view by delving deep into the culture of nuclear discussion and policy. Most interesting to me is her discussion of the hushed underlying of nuclear weapons talk and this class in general: the abstract and euphoric language used. Professor Glaser has done well at injecting reality into our lectures, confirming that when we are optimizing the blast radius of a bomb we are in fact calculating the height in which we can best destroy cities, homes, and lives. He does so because as Cohn points out, is easy to disconnect nuclear discussion. “Clean bombs” disfigure and kill hundreds and destroy cities. The MX missile, capable of inflicting multiple targets, is a ‘peacekeeper.’ Language is domesticized in order to better

As a non-sciencey individual, it is this concept that most interests me about this class and the readings. Learning the details of rocketry and other scientific facts is very interesting, but not as much as the psychological aspect. The fact that the entire metropolises and human lives are behind our estimations is . Do other non-physic/science majors have difficulty overlooking this underlying aspect? For the science majors, what would your response be to this? I understand that is a very basic question, but will give great insight to a often glazed over topic.

Not as logical is Cohn’s description the domination of males in the field and the resulting sexual innuendos and lingo. Feminists often describe this phallic worship and “missile” envy is the most important aspect of the arms race. Exemplified by nuclear virginity of nations being taken, putting the missiles in the hole, and getting the most bang for your buck, the language is testosterone induced and filled with sexual references.

In regards to these two observations, I completely agree with Cohn’s statement, “sanitized abstraction and sexual … imagery, even if disturbing, seemed easily to fit into the masculinist world of nuclear war planning.” Whether it is masculinity or nationalism, a nation must be willing to be aggressive and assertive in such high stakes. Do you agree with Cohn’s statement? Do you think a sense of superiority, often coinciding or referred to over-masculinity, is somewhat inherent and necessary to nuclear war planning? — Connor

17 thoughts on “Abstract and Masculine Language in Nuclear Planning

  1. I believe Cohn is right in arguing that the “technostrategic” language defense intellectuals have developed is used to detach themselves from the horrors of their creations. Is there any other way to discuss weapons building than in a detached manner? I would be far more concerned if our scientists were excited about mass killing!

    I find it a bit of a stretch, however, that this language takes the form of sexual imagery in their weapons discussions. Her introduction, where she discusses the importance of feminist writing in her life, suggests she was searching for sexual connotations and found what she was looking for. Not to say that this sexual imagery isn’t there, but her hyperawareness of the exact language being used seems to exaggerate the situation at times (for example, “patting” the missile).

  2. Whether or not the sexual imagery Cohn talks about is in fact relevant, the larger scenario she paints certainly is. And I couldn’t help coming back to the last question in Problem Set 2 as I read: Why do we think that the U.S. decided to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It’s all well and good to answer that question in terms of risk/reward calculations and domestic support — as I did. But I think there’s another element that we miss, but that Cohn reminds us of in this piece. After years of war and fighting, already desensitized defense planners must have been even more so. They had been speaking in technical jargon for a long time, and the idea of ending a war must have meant a good deal more to them than faceless mortality statistics.

    Moreover, if Cohn’s concluding argument talk of nuclear war being talk of the impossible — an idea separated from reality and possibility — is right, then it’s no wonder that defense planners were willing to attack cities. The very concept of nuclear war was so surreal that, particularly in their desensitized state, I can’t imagine that it would have been easy to conceive of the destruction they were about to cause.

  3. While I would agree that military planning does need to be carried out with a certain level of confidence, I do
    not believe that this dialogue needs to be discussed in an overly-masculinized context. In fact, the use of such language is likely to lead to more harm than good by clouding logical judgment. By imbuing the conversation with such imagery, you create an environment in which it becomes easier to run the risk of over-estimating your personal capabilities or of trying to force a situation when you would be best playing it safe. There needs to be a fine balance between confidence and arrogance, and a less masculinized context should help to achieve this. This is not to say that masculinity equals arrogance or vice-versa, only that the use of some of the terminology discussed by Cohn, such as the equation of nuclear war to a “pissing contest” (696), lends itself to such types of thinking.

    I feel Cohn’s mention of planning for worse-case scenarios also deserves some attention. She believes that this type of thinking simply leads to spending large amounts of resources on situations that may or may not come to fruition (707). However, I would argue that this type of planning is an absolute necessity in the military world since there is always the possibility that you have miscalculated the intentions of your enemy. Where I do believe worst-case scenario thinking begins to become a problem is when it bleeds over into diplomatic relations. This is a realm in which understanding true intentions is critical and where worst-case thinking, if not
    properly tempered, can result in an inability to overcome feelings of distrust that can hinder any path towards peace.

  4. The disconnection from nuclear discussion is one that I would think is a natural progression of weapon scientists. In the time before the nuclear weapon there was the firebomb. Not nearly as effective and used to utterly destroy cities. I wonder if the same scientists working on those bombs would also have euphemisms in order to not have to face the horrifying effects of their weapon. In fact, this could be extended to most modern weapon development. Is it because of the jump in scale that Cohn picks up on the euphemisms here? Or the sensationalization that nuclear weapons have received post Hiroshima? What I find particularly annoying is Cohn’s doubt of the radiation being the only ‘dirty’ part of the bomb. Out of all of the nuclear bomb’s effects, the one with a major lasting impact is the radiation: the air blast dissipates and so does the heat blast. Subtract the radiation and you have a massively powerful bomb with no lasting effect on the landscape. So yes, to me the radiation is the only ‘dirty’ bit of the nuclear bomb.

    All in all, to me it seems that the male dominated nuclear weaponry world and its sexual innuendo and lingo are a coping mechanism for those who build the weapons. How do you think non-frontline fighting scientists would be able to handle the moral implications of building something that could easily wipe out a whole city and millions of lives? The ability to “ignore sentient human bodies, human lives” is a necessity for weapon builders, the accountability would destroy them. Their distancing is out of necessity to remain morally sane, not some anti-feminist subplot in their boys club.

    With that previous point comes my question: if the nuclear weapons and their creation are so negative, why target the language that the scientists use to remain sane and not the policy makers and military decision makers that would issue the use of such weapons? It seems to me this decrying of the protective euphemistic wall is similar to the popular negative reaction against the troops returning from the Vietnam War. Both were responsible for snuffing out human lives due to orders from above, and both have to cope with such things. Both cases have popular opinion that attack their coping mechanisms, and, is successful, it would drive each of them to a moral crisis. Basically, criticize the head who made the decision, not the hand that carried it out.

  5. I agree with MicKenzie on the subject of Cohn’s in depth analysis of military planners and government leaders “patting the missile”. It seems like a bit of a reach to claim that these men, by patting the missile, are downplaying the atrocities that nuclear warfare could induce. In my mind, more than displaying sexual dominance or threat pacification, the patting of the missile is another example of the warped perspective these scientists, strategists, and leaders have developed after years spent enveloped in this culture of technostrategic language and “realist” nuclear strategy. Still, war is about superiority. Countries engage in conflicts and these conflicts, as well as the planning and positioning that contribute to them, are by their very nature at odds with many of the principles of the rest of civil society. For the same reason that crimes committed by military personnel are dealt with internally with court-martials, war strategy is filled with language of superiority, hyper-masculinity, and desensitization to maintain its effectiveness in that specific context.

  6. First, I agree with Cohn’s point that there is a huge “language gap” between a general educated person and the “defense intellectuals” who pursue nuclear development and nuclear war planning for a living. This gap is caused not just by the professional practice of using certain technical terms, but also by their deliberate choice to speak in extreme abstract language that removes themselves from reality. As Connor mentioned, human death is de-personalized into the abstract language “collateral damage,” and certain destructive bombs are referred to as “clean bombs” euphemistically. While I was reading the article, I thought about possible reasons behind this communication practice. Perhaps, for those policy-planners who are constantly under the psychological pressure to develop policies and decisions with such high stakes, it is a form of self-defense mechanism to confine their language to abstract level and avoid talking about “destroying cities, homes, and lives” at a human level.

    In response to Connor’s prompting question, I agree with Cohn’s point that “militarized masculinity and decontextualized rationality” are perhaps psychologically necessary for nuclear war-planning. Without such bluffing and disconnection from reality, it may be difficult for the stakeholders and decision-makers to deal with the emotional and psychological toll of thereal implications of their decisions. However, I don’t think this psychological explanation can be used as a justification for keeping their discussions from intellectual and ethical scrutiny.

    In fact, in the conclusion section, Cohn suggests that “our nuclear policies are so riddled with irrationality that there is a lot of room for well-reasoned, well-informed arguments to make a difference ” (716). However, that optimistic insight also seems to be at odds with the reality that Cohn herself needed to master the “language of abstraction and masculinity” because that was the way to gain public legitimacy in the field (716). Based on this experience, it seems systematically difficult for “outsiders” –academics or practitioners from other disciplines– to enter the scholarly conversation with “defense intellectuals” or attempt to offer a new perspective on their assumptions and decisions.

  7. As a few people have already commented, I too felt that Cohn’s input on the sexual language of missiles and nuclear weapons to be less insightful than the rest of her article. Many people have already acknowledged and made claims on sexual imagery in the military (ie – corporals having a bigger chevron on their sleeve than privates), so it does not surprise me that, if one looks hard enough or pays close enough attention, that similar observations could be made to missiles. The part I found most interest was towards the end, when Cohn realizes that she can no longer see the “walls” to the difference in language now that she was an insider. This made me think if there would be any benefit to the military cycling officers and scientists through its nuclear program. Would such cycling provide more opportunity for these individuals to continue to see these “walls”, or would it merely inhibit the efficiency of the program? While in hindsight I feel like I should have realized one of Cohn’s points before reading her article – her observation that military planners focus more on weapon survival than civilian survival, it still really stood out to me. Could there have been the absence of civilian concerns because effective defensive measures to missiles (ie – no ballistic missile shield) did not exist? Or was this a fault in the priorities and responsibilities of the strategic commands? Basically, should these units have been tasked with minimizing civilian casualties first, even if it meant using fewer missiles in a strike, or should they have been focused completely on the number of missiles game? Or is there something else that may have caused prioritization of missiles over civilians besides military tasking?

  8. I agree that the gap between civilian and military language in regards to nuclear weapons is prolific and notable. I think the disconnect of the language from the damage, human suffering, and destruction that they inflict is interesting in that it indicates (or presupposes) a larger national stance on the morality of using nuclear weapons that is masked in abstraction and innuendo. The power of a nuclear arsenal as well as deterrence strategy of nuclear equipped nations relies on the principle that given a national threat, the nation will respond with the extreme force of nuclear strikes. This can be phrased euphemistically as a clean strike with collateral damage, or entrenched in masculine language comparing it more to sexual innuendo than incomprehensible human suffering. However, in this stance we imply that as a society we accept the idea that it is tolerable to use this kind of force and devastation to protect ourselves. That is, our view as a nation comes to be that we are okay using nuclear weapons, destroying cities, communities, families, leaving residual radiation effects, etc., so long as we get to the desired end of national security.

    I believe this is a lofty statement for us as a nation and one that many citizens might generally disagree with. I do not believe that everyone is necessarily comfortable saying that the value of a certain number of american lives is far more valuable than the suffering of innumerable citizens of other nations. It is this aspect of nuclear warfare that from which abstraction and innuendo are derived. Nuclear war laid out plainly, or rather addressing destruction and suffering head on, forces us into a moral stance that the ends of nuclear war justify the means. A safe nation is more valuable than the lives of other nation’s citizens. However, draped in abstraction and innuendo we can overlook the moral decision of nuclear war, and can simply focus on its use for our own protection.

  9. I agree with your assessment that Cohn did not mention accountability on the part of the policy makers. I feel like it is the job of the military leaders and scientists to be aware of the capabilities of the weapons. I think that Cohn would support the idea that in order to effectively do this job, they do need the metaphors and acronyms. However, it is ultimately up to the policy makers to decide whether or not to use the nuclear weapons. Therefore, they should be the ones aware of the damage done to human life.

    What’s interesting is that policy makers need to keep the human factor in perspective while still being able to have a technical conversation with the scientists and military leaders. Cohn mentioned how she became numb to the facts once she started to learn the technical language, but needed to do that in order to be taken seriously. It’s as if the policy makers need a “translator” in order to fully assess the situation without being affected too much by the masculine and detrimental language used to assess military power.

  10. I, like several other students, found Cohn’s discussion of the rules and limits of nuclear language to be the most compelling part of her paper. The scientists and analysts with whom Cohn spent the summer were not actively trying to ignore the humanitarian costs of nuclear weapons; rather, the language they were speaking did not even allow for that topic to even be discussed. The language of nuclear warfare conditions those who use it to speak only in terms of weapons, both lost and gained.

    It is, of course, a very scary idea that these analysts spend their time discussing how to protect their weapons, not their nation’s citizens. It is even more worrisome that the opinions of those who do not “speak nuclear”, who try to discuss the actual human cost of any given scenario, will be dismissed, as Cohn experienced. One could make the argument that, if analysts discussed the human lives that were lost, and incorporated human death into their everyday language, they would in fact become anesthetized to those words, just as they are numb to the idea of “collateral damage”. This scenario would be even worse than the current one, as the language of death would likely become totally meaningless to these analysts in a matter of years. Is it better to keep the language of nuclear war as it is, so that the language of death retains its feeling of humanity? It is unclear whether nuclear policy is so heavily influenced by its mechanical, inhuman language that this language must change. Is it even possible for this language to change? Or is it enough to, like Cohn, simply become aware of the problems with this vernacular so that we can be more responsible policy-makers?

  11. I 100% agree with what TJ said here. While it is all nice and good for us to weigh in on the morality of nuclear warfare and the nuances of the language with which it is discussed, as long as nuclear weapons exist and as long as countries continue to stockpile them the most important issue is non-proliferation. If other countries have nuclear weapons and there is even the slightest threat of them being used on us, whether or not we are honest with the language is a non-factor. TJ says that the nature of conflicts is “at odds with many of the principles of the rest of civil society” – countries exist in an anarchic system, a state of chaos, where morality and ethics have only the slightest of bearings on issues of security. While citizens and politicians of virtually every country agree on the dangers of nuclear warfare and the importance of avoiding it – both by reaching peaceful solutions and disarmament – when it comes to military planning, which must always factor in the worst case scenarios, there would be no benefit to constantly reminding each other the real and brutal costs of such contingency plans. At the end of the day, casualties are a cost of war and in the interest of national security (in planning against a country that likely is making calculations just as pragmatically) are truly a necessary evil and continuing to address these issues in such objective, euphemistic, and far-removed language is, to an extent, justifiable.

  12. I agree with Nick’s assertion that the gap between civilian and military language regarding nuclear weapons is prolific and sometimes somewhat disturbing. However, from the military’s perspective, there is much to be gained by using innuendo when discussing nuclear weapons and avoiding a larger debate about the ethics of using nuclear weapons in the first place. As Nick says, the simple threat of using nuclear weapons is a strong piece of deterrence strategy, as it is necessary to signal that one would respond with extreme nuclear force in the even of a strong threat or attack. If the military were to think about the destruction and humanitarian crisis caused by nuclear weapons in the way that civilians do, this thought process could inhibit the military’s ability to protect the citizens it serves in the event of a nuclear strike. In the event a nuclear strike is deemed necessary, if the terminology around nuclear weapons were not so clouded in abstraction, then those in positions to execute an attack may hesitate or resist to do (which, in the context of the military and its strict hierarchy, is an undesirable outcome. Additionally, this type of language seems to fall in line with a pattern of language used throughout the military, even when not discussing nuclear weapons (at least based on popular portrayals of the military in various media outlets). For example, the military is often portrayed as attempting to dehumanize the violence of war by referring to enemy forces at “targets”. This type of language is a clear attempt to make violence deemed necessary for national security far more palatable than it otherwise would be. Although clearly it is necessary to consider the destructive nature of nuclear weapons in a broader philosophical context, the fact that the military chooses not to seems to be a clear attempt to strengthen deterrence by making their use seem much more likely to actually happen.

  13. I think that Cohn’s point about language differing from a military or a civilian standpoint was very accurate. Possible one of the most difficult things about discussing the use of any weapon in warfare, especially a nuclear weapon of such mass destruction, is that it requires us to “weigh” human lives. The people killed in a nuclear strike would weaken the enemy and, ideally, prevent more lives from the attacker’s nation from being lost. However, is it possible to determine how many lives lost to the enemy it is “worth” to save lives on our own side? Are human lives measurable? Likely not from a humanitarian standpoint; thus, the language has to be differentiated within the military in order to sustain the system. Within the military, civilian casualties might be referred to as collateral damage of the target city, giving the operation a less humanitarian, more mechanized view and turning the civilian lives lost into a statistic rather than a personable event. While it is difficult to reconcile the civilian and military viewpoints and use of language, it is probably necessary to differentiate between them for the sake of the psyches of the military commanders and soldiers responsible for carrying out the attacks. From a psychological standpoint, it would be very difficult for a human to justify killing hundreds of thousands of humans to save an unsure number of other humans, and this necessitates the weaponized, statistical language, even if it seems less humane.

  14. After reading these comments, I’m wondering about how detached “technostrategic” language is used to describe other military technologies. I fear that this may especially apply to contemporary weapons like drones where the separation between “costs” and “benefits” (which are deceiving terms themselves) is even greater considering the removal of the risk of losing American soldiers in formal battle. In that respect, there is a parallel between nuclear weapons and drones; the fact that we are letting technology do our killing overseas without having to deploy US troops. If society pushes science along to develop similar technologies, we will need to be more aware of the real life effects of our weapons, rather than use distracting jargon.

  15. It was very interesting to read Cohn’s observation of the effect these technical languages had on her, despite her deliberate intention to study it in the first place. This made her argument a lot more persuasive. In fact, I realized how much of the initial disturbance Cohn had felt resonated with me. I remember one of the lectures when we had to calculate the optimal air burst height. Even though I knew in the back of my mind that this was a scientific part we must understand and was all hypothetical, I got a little uncomfortable with the fact that I myself was trying to calculate the “optimal – the best” way to kill as many people as possible. Yet, at the same time I also remembered comparing one of my answer to problem set to the actual and thinking, “thank goodness this answer is an overestimation” and forgetting the fact that the actual was still beyond any possible destructions I could ever imagine. Now, imagine how much more my thinking process would change, the more I research, and get used to discussing about this subject!

    I agree with you that Cohn’s discussion on the sexual innuendoes is not as insightful as the psychological effects of language abstraction. Though disturbing as the terms sound, the significance of these euphoric and sexual terms is not necessarily the fact that they reflect masculine world of nuclear planning. The terms may have been given due to gender imbalance but this has little importance to the actual objectives of nuclear planning. I think Cohn’s criticism of the language of abstraction explains the bigger issue underlying such innuendoes. In addition to all the abstract acronyms and technological idioms, these sexual metaphors further delineate these researchers and technicians from the reality of the destructions one single nuke could cause. That being said, I am not quite sure how much of the emphasis on feminism plays importance in Cohn’s argument. It may have sparked Cohn’s interest in the subject, but I don’t see how the problem may lie on gender imbalance. I think Cohn’s argument can be taken seriously without raising the issue of feminism or gender imbalance in nuclear weapon field. Cohn concludes with the importance of creating “diverse voices” in the conversation in order to “create compelling alternative visions of possible futures.” I agree that female researchers may increase gender-sensitivity in the field, but it would not necessarily stop the use of technical acronyms. I believe that literal “diverse” voices, which expand beyond gender issues, is required to truly achieve what Cohns concludes is needed in her conclusion.

  16. Like most other students I see Cohn’s argument for overly sexualized militaristic language to be a bit exaggerated. It does not necessarily seem “sexual” to say that a missile penetrated the airspace of another country; certainly, this word has meanings beyond its sexual implications. But even for what amount of sexualized language there is, I do not think this plays to the same effect as Cohn argues at the beginning of the paper of desensitization
    and nonchalance. If anything, the depiction of missile attacks as “rape” and the start of nuclear development as
    a “loss of virginity” just exacerbates the destructive and traumatizing effects of these weapons, and certainly do not play to the potentially comforting nature of nuclear weapons. Perhaps this play of hypermasculinity adds to the perverse pleasure derived from the idea of dominance (which adds to its militaristic appeal), but the usage of these terms seem much more akin to Freudian slips and unintentional reflections of more bestial human tendencies for conflict/war/aggression than clinical evaluations of the kill-rate for missiles. The disconnect between instinctive human sympathies (which is perhaps the public view of nuclear weapons), scientific detachment (which is what developers of nuclear weapons might experience), and the deeper, more disturbing innate drives towards power and control (which might be reflected in the oversexualized language surrounding nuclear weapons), then, is perhaps what is most frightening about nuclear weapon development. It is so easy to see how these weapons of mass destruction and pull out different sides of our personalities, to such an extent that this seems to be a potential breeding ground for the manipulation of human psychology.

  17. Technostrategic language, as Cohn describes it, is a symbol of the intertwined, inextricable nature of strategic thinking in the nuclear and technological world. Without it, these nuclear experts and defense intellectuals, must confront the stark realities and consequences of the nuclear weapons, capable of decimating cities and killing thousands, that they were helping to create, design, and utilize. Connor’s question as to the validity of this statement: “sanitized abstraction and sexual … imagery, even if disturbing seemed to fit into the masculinist world of nuclear war planning” is interesting in that it forces us to think whether the language of nuclear planning and strategy is inherently chauvinistic and overly masculine.

    I do not think that technostrategic language is in any way inherently chauvinistic or masculine, but rather, that technostrategic language reflects the most convenient and sensical way in which nuclear defense experts and intellectuals can dehumanize and distance themselves from the utterly destructive work that they pioneer and perpetuate. In fact, the fact that it is sexist or testosterone-motivated language that is able to distract and compel a primarily male-dominated group of nuclear experts to talk about their work without too much moral conflict reflects more about the type of society that we live in. Nuclear weapons, whether using words like “clean” or “limited”, acronyms, over sexualized innuendos, or male birth metaphors, can only ultimately be talked about unless we find some way to disguise the reality that they cause. The only way the people who base their livelihood and receive income off of a basically inhumane technology can live with a decent conscience is if they invoke metaphors that reflect greater realities in society: whether that be a race to compete for one’s masculinity or providing nuances to their work through differentiating between “clean” and “not so clean” strikes. Though the nuclear weapons industry and discourse seems to be highly dominated by males, I do not necessarily agree with Cohn that over masculinization and chauvinism is the only way to talk about nuclear war planning.

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